University of California, Los Angeles
After a very brief visit to the Seeley G. Mudd Library to examine the American Civil Liberties Union Papers while between east-coast conferences in late 2004, it was with great hopefulness that I applied for a Friends of the Princeton University Library Research Grant in early 2005. I was delighted to receive one, and I remain extremely grateful for the financial assistance that facilitated my subsequent visit in July 2005.
My dissertation looks at responses to obscenity and pornography in the postwar United States. Though attentive to the courts, I am attempting to move beyond the predominantly legalistic historiography by approaching my topic through other frameworks, such as intellectual and social history. The ACLU Papers are of immense worth to this endeavor in several regards.
First and foremost, the ACLU Papers give insight into the ACLU as an organization. Committee minutes, memoranda, and other internal documents show how the ACLU reflected the ambivalence of the postwar liberal consensus regarding sexuality; while the organization absolutely and categorically supported "freedom of speech" and opposed "censorship," it somehow managed to make an exception for "obscenity." The intellectual convolutions necessary to maintain this doctrine hardly went unnoticed within the ranks of the ACLU, and a great deal of debate and controversy ensued on the topic. By the mid-1960s the ACLU had reached an official stance vague enough to pacify both free-speech absolutists and those who would exclude obscenity from the province of the First Amendment, without fully satisfying either group.
Beyond this aspect, the ACLU Papers also offered a fascinating wealth of material on censorship and anti-obscenity groups and efforts, due to the ACLU's function as a watchdog organization. Most valuable from this angle was the group's extensive collection of documents detailing the efforts of Citizens for Decent Literature, which rose from local Cincinnati status in the late 1950s to become America's foremost anti-obscenity group in the 1960s. The group left no centralized archive, and I have scoured scattered archival holdings from Arizona to Georgia to Indiana tracing it. The ACLU Papers contain not just CDL documents I have not seen elsewhere, but also reports filed by local Civil Liberties Unions describing CDL activities. In short, the Papers were once again invaluable.
One aspect of my dissertation I had not expected to pursue at the Mudd Library was a community study of censorship and obscenity in Memphis, Tennessee. But even here the ACLU Papers turned up some wonderfully useful correspondence between the national office and local liberals and newspapermen in Memphis. I had spent an entire summer doing research in Memphis, but it was a document here that finally filled a gap in my knowledge as to why legal efforts to overturn the Memphis censor board came to naught in the late 1940s. Again, I was thrilled.
Ultimately, the ACLU Papers made a profound contribution to my dissertation. The staff at the Mudd Library was impeccably courteous and helpful, as was everyone involved in the Friends of the Princeton University Library grant program with whom I came into contact. I enjoyed my stay in Princeton greatly, and I look forward to making productive use of the material I gathered while there as I complete my dissertation.
15 November 2005